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Meeting with governor cools UI tension

Diane Heldt

The Gazette

November 28, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by The Gazette, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of The Gazette.]

  CEDAR RAPIDS — A new decision on how to proceed with the University of Iowa’s controversial presidential search could come in the next few days, a state regent said last night.

  Regent Bob Downer told reporters the regents likely will discuss the sometimes combustible search this week, with a possible announcement coming in a few days. He commented after Gov. Tom Vilsack met in a private Cedar Rapids meeting with a small group that included Regents President Michael Gartner of Des Moines; Downer of Iowa City; and UI faculty, staff and student leaders.

  Attendees declined to give specifics about what was discussed or to comment on what comes next. But several said they felt progress was made and tension that has boiled over during a recently scrapped attempt at finding a new UI president soothed during the three-hour session.

  ‘‘Everyone was very frank, but we’re all committed to acting in the best interests of the University of Iowa,’’ Downer said. ‘‘ The atmosphere I thought was very positive.’’

  Vilsack called the meeting in an attempt to help strained relationships and move forward in the search to replace David Skorton, who left the UI in June for the presidency at Cornell University.

  The regents on Nov. 17 voted 6-2 to reject the four candidates a search committee recommended to the board and relaunch the search. It was a surprise decision that drew the ire of many at the UI.

  But Faculty Senate President Sheldon Kurtz and Student Government President Peter McElligott hinted last night they no longer may move forward with resolutions of no-confidence in the regents leadership planned for today.

  ‘‘Talking soothes the soul. We have every reason to be optimistic,’’ Kurtz said.

  McElligott said, ‘‘We want to work with everyone to find the best president possible, so that’s where we’re at.’’

  UI Staff Council President Mary Greer said it’s too soon to know if her group will go ahead with a planned no-confidence resolution in December. The best part about meeting with Vilsack, she said, is that the UI parties felt they were heard. Vilsack said he would be in touch over the next few weeks, she said.

  ‘‘In itself, I think this meeting was the first step forward,’’ Greer said.

  Earlier Monday, Vilsack said in a Gazette Editorial Board meeting he would propose that creating a UI vice president for health sciences position could help the regents take another look at the four candidates they rejected. Having a vice president for the health sciences, including University Hospitals, who reports to the president could free the regents to choose a candidate with a strong academic background but not as much experience in the health sciences, he said.

  ‘‘I think that’s a reasonable first step,’’ Vilsack told The Gazette. ‘‘It seems to me to be a realistic way to deal with one of the troublesome spots.’’

  None of last night’s meeting participants would comment on that possibility.

  The governor, in a brief statement to reporters after the meeting, described the session as frank and productive. He did not answer questions after his statement.

  ‘‘There were a number of issues discussed at length. I believe we’re making progress, but there is more work to do,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s essential for the University of Iowa to have a great president. We’re going to continue to work to make that happen.’’

  Gartner declined comment, saying Vilsack was the spokesperson.

  Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, said after the meeting that the Legislature likely will discuss next session the role the regents should have governing the state’s universities.

  Vilsack told The Gazette earlier in the day he wasn’t interested in blaming anyone for the tensions stemming from the search process.

  ‘‘The last thing we need to do is throw gasoline on this fire, which has burned pretty bright,’’ he said.

  The ‘‘personality’’ issues involved in the conflict is a long-term discussion that can be dealt with once a president is in place, Vilsack said.

  ‘‘Let’s get some calm and stability and direction,’’ he said. ‘‘I hope people understand that by inflaming the situation further it will certainly do damage to the university in the long term."